di Marcello Mento
(By Paul Virgo) Rome, October 3 - A split within Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party after rebel lawmakers forced the ex-premier to back down over a government confidence vote appeared to be on hold Thursday while peace talks take place, although confusion reigned. "The line of (forming) a new group is suspended," said Senator Roberto Formigoni, the former governor of Lombardy and a senior member of the dissidents. Formigoni added that Berlusconi had been "open to dialogue" during a meeting Thursday with Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who is also the PdL's secretary and led the rebellion. The Senator said that around 70 centre-right lawmakers were ready to join the splinter group on Wednesday. However, another senior PdL Senator, Carlo Giovanardi, said the formation of a breakaway party would continue. A split within the PdL had looked inevitable when a group of PdL Senators told Berlusconi they would not obey orders to vote against Wednesday's confidence motion. This scuppered Berlusconi's bid to sink the coalition government of Premier Enrico Letta, a member of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD). It was an unprecedented act in a party in which Berlusconi's word had rarely been challenged. It forced the 77-year-old media magnate to make an embarrassing U-turn and tell his supporters to back the government, just four days after provoking a political crisis by pulling the PdL's ministers from Letta's administration. Some commentators see it as the beginning of the end for the dominant figure of Italian politics of the last two decades, although Berlusconi has made several comebacks in the past when he looked finished. The confusion over whether the party will split is further complicated by the fact that Berlusconi recently announced he was launching a new group to replace the PdL, which would revert to the former name, Forza Italia (FI). Several moderates in the party said they would not leave the PdL, while stressing that they would not join Berlusconi loyalists in switching to FI either. Alfano is critical of the so-called hawks in the PdL who encouraged Berlusconi to try to sink the government in the fallout of the decision by the supreme court in August to uphold a tax-fraud conviction against Berlusconi. The former premier says he is the victim of a 20-year-long campaign of persecution by left-wing magistrates who are allegedly trying to wipe him off the political landscape. He is also furious that his foes-turned-alliance partners in the PD are intent on voting for him to be stripped of his Senate seat at a parliamentary panel on Friday and then on the floor of the Upper House later this month following the tax-fraud verdict. But the PdL doves were against bringing down the left-right government, which was cobbled together in April to end the long deadlock after February's inconclusive general election, just as Italy looks close to emerging from its longest recession in over two decades. Formigoni's comments suggest some sort of reconciliation is being attempted within the party. Some political pundits have suggested that Letta's government will be stronger if the PdL does split and the executive only relies on the support of the breakaway group, rather than the whole centre-right party, even though this would give it a more slender majority in the Senate. The PdL's internal crisis was put on hold to some degree by a migrant-boat disaster off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Berlusconi called off a meeting with PdL lawmakers on Thursday and a joint press conference of the PdL's ministers was also cancelled as Alfano flew to Lampedusa.